Using Mindfulness to
Weave Compassion into the Brain
June 14, 2013
Rick Hanson, Ph.D.
The Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom
The negativity bias
The fruit and the path
The Natural Mind
Apart from the hypothetical influence of a
transcendental X factor . . .
Awareness and unconsciousness, mindfulness
and delusion, and happiness and suffering
must be natural processes.
Mind is grounded in life.
Mental activity entails
underlying neural activity.
Ardent, Diligent, Resolute, and Mindful
Repeated mental activity entails
repeated neural activity.
Repeated neural activity
builds neural structure.
Lazar, et al. 2005.
We can use the mind
To change the brain
To change the mind for the better
To benefit ourselves and other beings.
Working with Causes and Effects
Mental and physical phenomena arise, persist, and
pass away due to causes.
Causes in the brain are shaped by the mental/neural
states that are activated and then installed within it.
States become traits.
The neural traits of inner “poisons” (e.g., hatred, greed,
heartache, delusion) cause suffering and harm.
The neural traits of inner strengths (e.g., virtue,
mindfulness, wisdom, resilience, compassion, etc.)
cause happiness and benefit for oneself and others.
The Causes of Inner Strengths
How do we build the neural traits of inner strengths?
Inner strengths are mainly built from positive
You develop mindfulness by repeatedly being mindful;
you develop compassion by repeatedly feeling
The brain is like a VCR or DVR, not an iPod: you must
play the song to record it - you must experience the
strength to install it in your brain.
For Growing Inner Strengths
The problem is that, for survival reasons, the brain is
poor at turning positive states into neural traits.
It is bad at learning from good experiences compared
to how good it is at learning from bad experiences.
This design feature of the brain creates a kind of
bottleneck that reduces the conversion of positive
mental staits to positive neural traits.
The Negativity Bias
The Triune Brain
Three Fundamental Motivational
and Self-Regulatory Systems
Primary need, tends to trump all others
Elaborated via sub-cortex in mammals for
emotional valence, sustained pursuit
Attach to Others:
Very elaborated via cortex in humans for pair
bonding, language, empathy, cooperative
planning, compassion, altruism, etc.
The Homeostatic Home Base
When not disturbed by threat, loss, or rejection [no
deficit of safety, satisfaction, and connection]
The body defaults to a sustainable equilibrium of
refueling, repairing, and pleasant abiding.
The mind defaults to a sustainable equilibrium of:
Peace (the Avoiding system)
Contentment (the Approaching system)
Love (the Attaching system)
This is the brain in its homeostatic Responsive,
minimal craving mode.
Neurobiological Basis of Craving
When disturbed by threat, loss, or rejection [deficit of
safety, satisfaction, or connection]:
The body fires up into the stress response; outputs
exceed inputs; long-term building is deferred.
The mind fires up into:
Hatred (the Avoiding system)
Greed (the Approaching system)
Heartache (the Attaching system)
This is the brain in allostatic, Reactive, craving mode.
Choices . . .
Reactive Mode Responsive Mode
The Negativity Bias
As our ancestors evolved, avoiding “sticks” was more
important for survival than getting “carrots.”
Preferential encoding in implicit memory:
We learn faster from pain than pleasure.
Negative interactions: more impactful than positive
Easy to create learned helplessness, hard to undo
Rapid sensitization to negative through cortisol
Velcro for Bad, Teflon for Good
Considering the Costs and Benefits
As we evolved, the short-term benefits of the
negativity bias outweighed its long-term costs.
But now - when we want to live long and well, and
when we are exposed to chronic mild to moderate
Reactive stressors with little time for Responsive
recovery - this design feature is a kind of “bug” for
human brains in the 21st century.
This is also a key weakness of therapy, human
potential trainings, and character education: many
hard-won positive states are wasted on the brain.
Cultivation in Context
Three ways to engage the mind:
Be with it. Decrease negative. Increase positive.
The garden: Observe. Pull weeds. Plant flowers.
Let be. Let go. Let in.
Mindfulness present in all three ways to engage mind
While “being with” is primary, it’s often isolated and
privileged in mindfulness-based practices.
Skillful means for decreasing the negative and
increasing the positive have developed over 2500
years. Why not use them?
HEAL by Taking in the Good
1. Have a positive experience. Notice it or create it.
2. Enrich the experience through duration, intensity,
multimodality, novelty, personal relevance
3. Absorb the experience by intending and sensing that
it is sinking into you as you sink into it.
4. Link positive and negative material.
Let’s Try It
Notice the experience already present in awareness
that you are alright right now
Have the experience
Create the experience of compassion
Have the experience - bring to mind someone you care
about . . . Feel caring . . . Wish that he or she not suffer
. . . Open to compassion
It’s Good to Take in the Good
Development of specific inner strengths
“Antidote experiences” - “By love they will quench the
fires of hate” (the Buddha)
Being active rather than passive
Treating yourself like you matter
Training of attention and executive functions
Gradual sensitization of the brain to the positive: like
Velcro for the good
The Four Ways to Offer a Method
Doing it implicitly
Teaching it and then leaving it up to the person
Doing it explicitly with the person
Asking the person to do it on his or her own
The Fruit and the Path
The Fruit as the Path
Think not lightly of good,
saying, "It will not come to me.”
Drop by drop is the water pot filled.
Likewise, the wise one,
gathering it little by little,
fills oneself with good.
See www.RickHanson.net for other great books.
Austin, J. 2009. Selfless Insight. MIT Press.
Begley. S. 2007. Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain. Ballantine.
Carter, C. 2010. Raising Happiness. Ballantine.
Hanson, R. (with R. Mendius). 2009. Buddha’s Brain: The Practical
Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom. New Harbinger.
Johnson, S. 2005. Mind Wide Open. Scribner.
Keltner, D. 2009. Born to Be Good. Norton.
Kornfield, J. 2009. The Wise Heart. Bantam.
LeDoux, J. 2003. Synaptic Self. Penguin.
Linden, D. 2008. The Accidental Mind. Belknap.
Sapolsky, R. 2004. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. Holt.
Siegel, D. 2007. The Mindful Brain. Norton.
Thompson, E. 2007. Mind in Life. Belknap.
Key Papers - 1
See www.RickHanson.net for other scientific papers.
Atmanspacher, H. & Graben, P. 2007. Contextual emergence of mental
states from neurodynamics. Chaos & Complexity Letters, 2:151-168.
Baumeister, R., Bratlavsky, E., Finkenauer, C. & Vohs, K. 2001. Bad is
stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5:323-370.
Braver, T. & Cohen, J. 2000. On the control of control: The role of
dopamine in regulating prefrontal function and working memory; in
Control of Cognitive Processes: Attention and Performance XVIII.
Monsel, S. & Driver, J.